Rugby World CupTonga focus

Prodigal sons return to Tongan colours without diluting the essence of the Sea Eagles spirit

Rugby World Cup: Forwards coach Zane Hilton believes allowing players to express themselves is vital

Tongan forwards coach Zane Hilton’s handshake is firm, his smile broad as he chatted amicably about his upcoming role alongside Les Kiss, once of Ireland, Ulster and London Irish, who has been appointed as the new coach of the Reds Super Rugby team in Queensland.

Hilton, 42, is widely travelled as a coach and has enjoyed success from grassroots to international level. The Australian knows the scale of the task that awaits in Tonga’s opening match of the World Cup at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes on Saturday, but the overriding emotion is a sense of restless anticipation.

There is a respect for Ireland in everything that is said about the match, from players and coaches alike, but the animation that occasionally flickers across eyes and faces betrays the fact that beneath the politeness Tonga cannot wait to rip into the number one side in the world.

It should be that way and it’s likely to be reciprocated by Andy Farrell’s side who will pay their Pacific Island opponents the respect of trying to bring their best game to Nantes.


Johnny Sexton is thrust forward by one inquisitor seeking an opinion about how Tonga plan to stop the Ireland captain. Hilton doesn’t point out that Sexton may not play but instead broadens the conversation.

“Across the board they [Ireland] are a great side, so to isolate one player would be disrespectful to the rest of them. Johnny is one of many influential players at the weekend. For us we will be worrying about what we can control and how to play our game.

“We have been concentrating on key areas to be world class and have been working really hard over the past three months, the focus very much on us to nail world-class elements.”

Narrowing the focus slightly Hilton is asked about Ireland’s lineout issues, but he just smiled and batted away the question.

He expects Ireland to be foot perfect on Saturday night before he added so “we have to continue to do what we do well. We feel we have some exceptional players in that area. We have spent three months together preparing for this moment.”

The Australian began as a development officer with the Queensland rugby union, spent a year at Benetton, coached at the Brothers Club, moved to Japan for four years, returned take up a position as forwards coach at the Melbourne Rebels (2014) and fulfil a similar role with Samoa (2017), which included a stint as high-performance manager.

A second stint in Japan pre-empted his arrival at Tonga under head coach Toutai Kefu. It’s a breathless coaching resume but one that permits him to provide an insight into not how the Tongan set-up differs to others he’s experienced, but the high-level performance traits that they share.

Hilton explained: “The players we have in the group have a mindset of sheer excellence around wanting to drive their performance and improve every day. Physicality is part of who the boys are. For us as coaches, it is important to give them freedom to bring it out and express themselves round how they want to play the game without giving too much structure.

“It is important for us, and the whole world to see the individual skills and talents they have got.”

Cultural identity is fundamental to how the Pacific Island nations conduct themselves on and off the pitch and Hilton offers what he believes to be the essence of Tonga’s in a single word.

“Humility. This is the greatest coaching experience I have ever had, and I have been lucky enough to have a number of jobs around the world. There is continued humility across the board and the whole group expresses itself [in a similar vein]. I feel like I take more from the experience than I give to the experience.”

There has been much made of world-class talent that will be available to Tonga for the first time in a World Cup under the new eligibility rules having previously played for other countries. Former Ulster player Charles Piutau, Tongan born but once of New Zealand, is arguably foremost in those that fall into that category.

Hilton said: “[Piutau’s] skill set is there to be seen for everyone and has been throughout his career in counterattack, he kicks excellently, has that ability to carry the ball and take it to the line. His decision making [makes him stand apart too].

“He makes a real difference in the backfield, is a very good organiser and communicates well. It is a real credit for someone to make other players around him better and he is a great example of that.”

Hilton added that while it has been great for the handful of players who have brought ideas from playing around the world, the group has not lost sight of playing the “Tongan way”.

“They bring excellence, but we are Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles), we do it our way.”

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer